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By Rick Kisonak | December 1, 2008

To put it in the best light possible, I recommend thinking of “Four Christmases” not so much as a really short movie but as a very special holiday episode of a sitcom. At 82 minutes, it’s not a whole lot longer than one of those. Both its humor and its structure additionally are tailor made for the tube. You can just see the commercial breaks falling neatly between the principle characters’ visits to the four families involved.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play a carefree San Francisco couple who’ve been together for three years, have a great apartment and are way too busy having fun to contemplate marriage or children. They’re like a breezier, less complicated version of, say, Ross and Rachel and the film’s early scenes give us an idea what a weekly half hour with them might look like.

The show’s premise is they’re the last of the hedonistic singles in their peer group. While their friends are home changing diapers or driving to school plays, Brad and Kate are squeezing every last drop out of life as attractive, unencumbered thirtysomethings. In one episode, they role play at a bar. In another, they take dancing lessons just for the hell of it (the other couples in the class are all preparing for their weddings). And when the holidays roll around, they take exotic tropical vacations leaving family members with the impression they’ve traveled to one impoverished nation or another to do charitable work.

Only in this particular holiday episode, fog strands them at the airport and a local television news crew turns it camera on them to inquire as to how they feel about being grounded at which point the couple realizes they’ve been busted and will be forced to endure actual face time with their kin. Since both Brad and Kate are children of divorce, this will entail visits to four separate households, each with its own set of horrors, family secrets and cheesy TV-level gags.

Celebrity guests have become a staple of sitcoms and ours embraces the trend wholeheartedly. There’s more than enough Hollywood talent here for nine or ten first rate motion pictures. So it’s amazing that director Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”) managed to assemble such a slapdash feature debut with the likes of Jon Favreau, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Carole Kane, Jon Voight and Robert Duvall on hand.

To put it kindly, some of the couple’s four stops are more inspired than others. The first is a total throwaway though it is preceded by an amusing scene in which Vaughn and Witherspoon work out a safe word to use in the event an immediate exit should become necessary (it’s “mistletoe”). Parent #1 is Vaughn’s old man, an inexplicably coarse and ornery rube played by Duvall. The gag here is that Brad’s two brothers (Favreau and Tim McGraw) are amateur cage wrestlers who attack him over and over again as dad drinks beer in his Lazyboy and laughs. “Mistletoe!”

Parent #2 is Kate’s mom. As played by Steenburgen, she’s more an idea for a character than a character. She’s so half-heartedly sketched she barely registers on the screen. The gag in this case is that she’s become born again or at least preoccupied with church activities and also happens to be dating her pastor (Yoakam). Though I’m not 100% certain this technically qualifies as a gag. Anyway, there’s a subgag in the sequence: Brad is shown a family photo album and guess what-Kate was overweight as a child! “You looked like you had a twin and ate it.” is the best Vaughn can summon.

Then it’s on to Brad’s mom (Spacek) who is shacked up with his childhood best friend. “Your mother is a very sexual being,” he is informed. Before we have time to wonder how news of the relationship wouldn’t have reached Brad before this, we’re on to our final stop for the day, the home of Kate’s father (Voight).

On route, however, the couple hits the mandatory third act bump in the road. All the emotions which have bubbled to the surface in the course of the day and all the exposure to babies have given Kate second thoughts about their chosen path. Brad is not immediately on board with the notion of major lifestyle changes, however, and, after a brief spat, deposits her at her dad’s for Christmas #4 before driving off to think deep thoughts.

This being a yuletide button pusher, there is zero doubt as to how things will turn out, naturally, but a dearth of suspense is hardly the film’s chief shortcoming. The picture has four writers and about as many solid laughs. Some sort of record very probably has been set, in fact, for the wholesale squandering of major screen talent. Nobody expects cinematic greatness from home for the holidays movies. At the same time, you don’t see names like Sissy Spacek or Robert Duvall in a picture’s credits and anticipate a pinheaded exercise in Stooges-level slapstick.

Vaughn does his best to deliver a shot of verbal adrenaline into the proceedings but even his trademark comic patter proves insufficient to bring these uneven and haphazard vignettes to life. Despite the promise shown previously by Gordon and the presence of an extraordinarily accomplished cast, there’s little to be said for “Four Christmases.” With the possible exception of “mistletoe!”

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